The reality, if not the term, of the Benedict Option goes back well before Rod Dreher’s popular book, even before Saint Benedict himself, at least back to Elijah and Elisha, who ‘opted’ to listen for God’s voice in the stillness and quietness of the desert.
But to Benedict the name has stuck. As a student in the decadence of sixth century fin de siècle Rome, Benedict found he could not live, or at least live well, amongst the milieu of his fellow scholars, their carousing and worldliness. He needed a path that was more perfect, more detached, more intentionally focused on his ultimate end and purpose. Benedict’s quest led him to his solitary cave overlooking Lake Subiaco, and eventually to founding the monastery at Monte Cassino.
Few are called to overtly follow Benedict, but the option named after him applies to all of us in some way; the question is, how?
The beginnings of an answer may be found in the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas. As a young boy of noble lineage, he began his own spiritual journey as a puer oblatus in the same monastery of Monte Cassino seven centuries after Benedict, with his family’s expectation that he would one day become the abbot (but to his family consternation, the teenaged Thomas chose the then-radical Dominicans instead).
If the mature Thomas were somehow to get his hands on Dreher’s book, suitably translated into mediaeval Latin, his mind would likely see the essence of the ‘Benedict Option’ in light of the sin of scandal (and its opposing virtue, edification), which in the Summa he distinguishes into two sorts: Active scandal, when someone leads someone else to sin; and passive, wherein we allow ourselves to be led into sin.
Active scandal may be provided not just by persons, but by the culture or milieu in which we live (even if these may ultimately be traced back to a person). At some point, this social structure may become so dispositive to sin that one would have difficulty avoiding evil, either by commission (being forced to act in some way contrary to God’s laws) or by omission (hindered in doing the good that we are called to do, for we must do more than avoid grave sin to attain heaven). Hence, the attractive option to retreat to a more favourable environment that will incline us more to virtue than to vice, that is, edify rather than scandalize.
Although Saint James exhorts us to keep our souls unstained from the world, not all of us need run off to a monastery to remain pure and reach heaven (although it does help for many). Yet, as the Second Vatican Council exhorted, it is incumbent upon all Catholics to follow that universal call to holiness, whether lay, clerical or consecrated life, in accord with Christ’s command to be ye perfect….
Hence, we should all adopt some sort of interior ‘Benedict Option’, to ensure our souls are not conformed to this age, to keep our thoughts and motives as pure as we can. Fair enough. Yet, as incarnate beings, we cannot remain interiorly detached from the world (along with the flesh and the devil) unless there is at least some corresponding exterior retreat, in the realms both of space and of time. That is, we must carve out, set apart and make sacred some physical place, as well as some minutes of each day. This could be daily Mass, a visit to the church, a prayer corner in our homes, or just going for a post-prandial meditative walk. How much time we give to God we must also decide: Some moments in the morning, offering the day to Him, seeking counsel and guidance; the reading of Scripture; an examination of conscience in the evening; devotions to the saints.
We also keep ourselves ‘unstained’ by avoiding complicity in evil, whether in terms of companions, speech, media, complaisance and adulation, along with any formal cooperation in the nefarious deeds of the world. This is an increasingly difficult problem in health care, with enforced complicity in abortion and euthanasia being the two most glaring examples, and is creeping into many other professions: lawyers aiding adulterous divorces and clearly guilty clients; teachers going along with deficient and even corruptive curricula, and on it goes.
Benedict, of course, decided to get away from it all, adopting a life of total, isolated dedication to God through prayer and manual work, ora et labora. The Church has consistently declared the objective superiority of what would come to be known as the consecrated religious life, the ultimate and most perfect ‘Benedict option’, especially in its enclosed, contemplative dimension, a sure and certain path to heaven, if lived well. Saint Philip Neri called such a vocation the greatest gift Our Lady could offer a soul.
For the rest of us not called to be monks or nuns, the consecrated life still offers an ideal and guide. One of the misinterpretations of Vatican II was that the clergy and religious should ‘lighten up’, secularize and become more like the laity, when it was quite the other way around: Sure enough, the laity, who make up about 99% of the Church’s billion-plus official members, have the specific vocation to sanctify secular affairs, but that does not mean that they should themselves be secularized. Rather, the laity were urged to share in the graces, and some of the practices, of those more fully consecrated to God. The Decree on the Laity urges them to adopt a ratio or plan of life that is more regulated and conducive to holiness, whether this be enrolling in a third order or pious association of some sort, or just giving to God a little more, and more consistently, of our time and space.
Most laypeople are called to marriage, and the Church asks them to form their family life as an ecclesia domestica, a domestic church, which is more than a glib and pious phrase: The family should govern itself like a true sacred assembly, with regular prayer and some level of retreat from the insidious effects of the ‘world’, with every home becoming a centre and source of holiness and spiritual growth.
In certain social milieux, Benedict’s Rome in its final stages of decline, Soviet Communism, Nazi Germany, and our own age under the totalitarian dogma of hedonistic and agnostic relativism (and numerous other examples could be adduced), a more intentional and external Benedictine retreat from the world may be required, to avoid the encroaching scandal of the world, and the assaults of the evil one. How much retreat, and of what sort, will vary for each particular case.
Single people not called to the convent or monastery may choose a type of self-imposed Benedict Option to seek greater spiritual perfection, but if formed well, they need not run off like Thoreau to find some quixotic splendid isolation in a cabin in the woods; by adopting and sticking to living by a self-imposed rule (ratio) of life, aided by the grace of God, they can in the main resist the allure of the world while living in its midst, and prove to be valiant quasi-apostles and missionaries, sanctifying the path on which they are called.
The main impetus for non-consecrated people to follow a more intentional Benedict Option, it seems, is to protect their children, whose developing souls, as Christ Himself implied, are more open to being scandalized, and more affected by what is around them. Children are not apostles to be sent out into the fray, but rather still-developing and easily-swayed beings, who need stable, holy, even, one might put it, quasi-monastic, environments wherein they may take in and assimilate all that is good and true and holy.
I will close with three factors that one may want to consider in one’s own Benedictine option:
First, there is the liturgy, especially Holy Mass for Catholics, the source and summit of the Christian life. Strive to find a place with a good, solid, orthodox Eucharistic and sacramental life, which may sustain you. Dreher mentions families who have set up house near the Clear Creek Benedictine community in Oklahoma, with similar communities existing here and there across North America. Not practical for all, but certainly a consideration. Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of praying is the law of believing; and lex credendi leads to lex agendi, the law of acting. We really are as we pray.
Second, retreat to a place where you can educate your children according to your own conscience, in the faith and all that is entailed in Christian culture and tradition, whether this be home-schooling, a private school, or a decent public school with some serious home catechesis and prayer.
Third, we should try to live near extended family, rediscovering in some new key the old clan system. Along with this, we should also do our best to build up a community of like-minded believers, with whom we can forge friendships and offer each other mutual support, which we will need more and more as the culture of death waxes strong, and Mordor creeps ever closer to the borders of the Shire.
Whatever the Benedict Option means for you, at least ponder the example that our forefathers in the faith have left us, and that the one option not open to us is to do nothing.